Saturday, January 29, 2011

China’s J20 Stealth Fighter: Made in America...via Belgrade

I have an article up at Asia Times titled The tearful origins of China's stealth.

It addresses a rumor circulating in China that the U.S. bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 in order to destroy wreckage of a F117A stealth fighter shot down during the NATO air war against Yugoslavia.

Regardless of whether or not the stealth wreckage legend is true, it appears highly probable that the embassy was bombed on purpose.

Certainly, a lot of people inside China believe the bombing was intentional.

The bombing of the Belgrade embassy is something of a 9/11 moment for China.

It galvanized the Chinese elite in its determination to upgrade China’s military capabilities.

It also occasioned a sea change in Chinese public opinion.

In 1989, I remember a resident of Beijing plaintively asking why the U.S. couldn’t send some B-52s to help out the pro-democracy demonstrators.

In 1999, when the U.S. bombers did show up—at the Chinese embassy in Belgrade—the reaction inside China wasn’t so favorable.

Warm and fuzzy affection for the United States as a paragon of democratic values were replaced, to a significant extent, by nationalist perceptions of the U.S. as a dangerous and unscrupulous adversary.

To the Chinese government’s satisfaction, the Belgrade bombing complicated the unfavorable post Tian An Men narrative of democracy-loving Chinese populace preferring the USA system over the PRC.

In a couple of posts in 2007, I covered the embassy bombing incident in considerable detail:

The Belgrade Bombing, the F-117 Cake, and the Tears of Premier Zhu Rongji 


Why China Hates Satellite Guided Munitions, Part 1: The Bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999

They are particularly useful because some interesting information has subsequently vanished from the net, and my posts are a good place to find them.

Here’s a taste, drawing on a 2006 report from a Chinese magazine called Global Views:

1960s tube amplifier enthusiasts will be thrilled to learn that the Yugoslavian air force attributes the shootdown of the F117A to P-12 type vacuum tube-technology Russian radars so old the U.S. considered them obsolete.

According to their account, the F117A Stealth fighter was detectable by antique radar operating at wavelengths of 2 meters—a detail that had supposedly escaped the Stealth designers, who operated on the assumption that the plane would only have to be invisible to modern centimeter and millimeter wavelength radars.

On the evening of March 27, Yugoslavia’s anti-aircraft defenses detected an aircraft entering Yugoslavian airspace at a distance of 80 km. The radar was immediately shut off, since U.S. planes were armed with radar seeking missiles that would fire automatically within 20 seconds and track the signal to its source and destroy it. The Yugoslavian anti-aircraft crews had been rigorously trained to either acquire and fire on a target or turn off their radio within this 20-second window. The radar was switched on when the target was about 15 km away and a barrage of SA-2 SAM missiles were fired manually. The F117A fell to earth. Witnesses said, “It looked like a sparrow shot from the sky.”

The shootdown raised an important tactical and strategic issue for NATO. Bad weather had limited helicopter operations and the U.S. was relying on high-altitude bombing to advance its war objectives. Therefore, a great deal of attention was paid to identifying and disabling Yugoslavia’s anti-aircraft facilities.

The Global Vision article reports that the headquarters of the 126 Mid-Air Detection and Anti-Aircraft Battalion—which had detected the plane—was attacked 11 times, each time with 5 JDAM bombs. The 250th Battalion—which fired the offending SAMs--was attacked 22 times.

The Yugoslav asserts that the 3rd Brigade of the 250th Battalion, whose missiles actually brought down the plane, suffered no fatalities or casualties during the war, leading them to brag: “We’re the real Stealth”.

The F-117A shootdown provided a psychological boost to the Yugoslavs which lives on to this day.

Every year on March 27 the 250th Battalion, now part of the Serbian Air Force, holds a raucous party. The main event occurs when a large cake bedecked with candles is rolled out. On the top is a rendering of an F-117A Nighthawk in chocolate. At precisely 8:42 pm, the exact time of the shootdown, the first slice is cut—through the port wing, which is the one severed by the SAM barrage.

No word as to whether the cake is inscribed with the taunt “Neener Neener” or the Serbian equivalent.
Happy New Year.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Hu Jintao's Visit: 2011 is not 2006

I wrote the obligatory Hu Jintao in America article for Asia Times, For Hu, Style Is the Substance.

I was able to make some useful points about how the red carpet treatment for China creates a few fissures in the US/ROK/Japan alliance and points up problems for conventional containment strategy against the PRC.

Also, I provided some interesting perspective that I haven't seen in the gazillion of other articles covering Hu's visit:

2011 is not 2006.

In 2006, the occasion of Hu's previous visit, George W Bush was still riding high in the early years of his second term. The "war on terror", with a few bumps, was rolling along and doing in the surviving members of the "axis of evil" - North Korea and Iran - was at the top of the foreign policy agenda after the third member, Iraq, had already been dealt with. Confronting China - long a preoccupation of vice president Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne Cheney - to moderate its support of North Korea and Iran was an important priority.

In April 2006, when Hu visited, the US campaign to financially isolate and destabilize North Korea - initiated with the Treasury finding that Macau's Banco Delta Asia (BDA) was a "financial institution of money laundering concern" and toppled it into insolvency - was in full swing.

And China was feeling the heat.

As the architect of the effort, David Asher, subsequently testified to the US congress, the objective of the BDA designation was an aggressive effort to "kill the chicken in order to scare the monkey", that is, intimidate China into actively participating in the financial blockade of North Korea by threatening its own institutions such as the People's Bank of China with a BDA-type designation if it continued its dealings with the Pyongyang regime.

The campaign, led by Treasury under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence Stuart Levey, was global in reach and reportedly successful enough to force some Chinese banks into cutting banking ties with North Korea. However, the US did not succeed in getting the Chinese government to change its North Korea policy or even abandon its support for BDA.

China's role as an impediment to Bush administration policies did not make for a particularly hospitable environment for Hu's visit.

As Dana Milbank reported at the time:

    The protocol-obsessed Chinese leader suffered a day full of indignities - some intentional, others just careless. The visit began with a slight when the official announcer said the band would play the "national anthem of the Republic of China" - the official name of Taiwan. It continued when Vice President Cheney donned sunglasses for the ceremony, and again when Hu, attempting to leave the stage via the wrong staircase, was yanked back by his jacket. Hu looked down at his sleeve to see the president of the United States tugging at it as if redirecting an errant child.

    Then there were the intentional slights. China wanted a formal state visit such as Jiang [Zemin] got, but the administration refused, calling it instead an "official" visit. Bush acquiesced to the 21-gun salute but insisted on a luncheon instead of a formal dinner, in the East Room instead of the State Dining Room. Even the visiting country's flags were missing from the lampposts near the White House.

In addition to his sunglass-donning transgression, Cheney also had to deny he had marked Hu's Oval Office briefing by taking a nap in his chair (thereby, perhaps inadvertently, leaving the impression that he had actually chosen to feign sleep in order to show his contempt for the red supremo).

The capper to the disastrous visit was the outburst of Dr Wang Wenyi, Falungong's point person on the issue of vivisection and organ harvesting allegedly inflicted on Falungong practitioners by the Chinese government.

Despite having been denied press credentials by Maltese security during a previous overseas trip of Hu's, somehow Wang was able to evade the scrutiny of the White House press office and acquire a one-day credential for Hu's visit as the press rep of Falungong's Epoch Times.

It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that somebody in the press office thought it might be a fun prank to throw Hu together with a Falungong activist.

In 2006, the Secret Service did not cover itself in glory, either, as Milbank described:

    90 seconds into Hu's speech on the South Lawn, the woman started shrieking, "President Hu, your days are numbered!" and "President Bush, stop him from killing!"

    Bush and Hu looked up, stunned. It took so long to silence her - a full three minutes - that Bush aides began to wonder if the Secret Service's strategy was to let her scream herself hoarse. The rattled Chinese president haltingly attempted to continue his speech and television coverage went to split screen.

Even if the U.S. commentariat doesn't remember the nitty gritty of the 2006 visit, Hu Jintao undoubtedly does--and finds the contrast extremely gratifying.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Eyesight to the Blind on North Korea

I have an article up at Asia Times on North Korea as the pivot point for competing U.S. and Chinese ideas of the North Asian security order.

Asia Times’ crack editors titled it Eyesight to the Blind .

Not sure what that’s about, unless they are referring to the fact that I haven’t seen other commentators making my point: that the U.S., ROK, and Japan are trying to assert a apply Free World vs. Communists template to guide relations with China and North Korea, while China wants to break this system down as a Cold War relic, and replace it with a series of bilateral relations.

North Korea is China’s wedge against the alliance: by asserting the continued viability of North Korea (with Chinese support, natch), it is declaring that a US/ROK/Japan tie-up can’t solve the Nork problem and is not an effective paradigm for North Asian security as a whole.

There is some anxiety that the U.S. is going to go all wobbly and make a separate peace with China, as Stephen Walt observed during his current trip to Vietnam:

I given several lectures since my arrival here, and met with a number of Vietnamese officials. One theme that has come up repeatedly is the fear that the United States and China will reach some sort of great power condominium. at the expense of the weaker powers in the region. There is clearly considerable concern that the United States will "do a deal" with China, in effect granting it a free hand in its neighborhood in exchange for concessions elsewhere.

I agree with Walt that the U.S. is unlikely to throw Vietnam (and the ROK and Japan) under the bus for the sake of the China relationship—even though there are signs that the Obama administration sees the current Korea policy as a cul-de-sac and wouldn’t mind extricating itself.

[It occurs to me that the Vietnam issue neatly illustrates the US conundrum. We want to frame Asia policy as a good guys vs. bad guys issue, but it turns out that the bad guys are all China and its allies--North Korea and Burma--but Vietnam, another single-party mixed-market autocracy, gets a free pass because it's at loggerheads with the Chinese. So it's hard to get away from the contain-China core of the policy, with all the risks and divided loyalties for the U.S. and its allies that the policy entails. Ironically, Vietnam, which is closest to the PRC in polity and economic strategy, is probably also the closest to serving as China's purest zero-sum adversary in Asia. CH 1/18/11]

The Lee Myung-bak government in Seoul and the DPJ regime in Japan are entirely vested in the pro-US/anti-North Korea security setup. There isn’t enough evident China upside to justify betraying two committed U.S. allies.

Also, national security theater has its own, supremely powerful constituency. Confronting a Chinese threat means fat defense budgets for US, ROK, and Japanese military and industrial establishments for at least half a century.

Andrew Cockburn titled his look at the J-20 Pentagon Ecstatic Over New Chinese "Threat" and wrote:

For much of the 1990s, luck deserted our military industrial complex. Its formerly reliable Soviet partners ceased to play their part, leaving the Pentagon to scour the world for a “peer or near peer competitor.” There were hopes, always futile, for a reconstituted USSR, or perhaps an emergent China (always popular on the right in those days) which was followed by the putative menace of regional competitors, (Iran, Iraq, North Korea) combining against America.


Now... the Chinese have stepped up to the plate.

Our Asian friends have suddenly offered a titillating peek from an airfield in Chengdu at their newest warplane, described as a radar-evading "stealth" fighter like our own F-22.

The reaction from some quarters has been predictably enthusiastic. "From what we can see, I conclude that this aircraft does have great potential to be superior in some respects to the American F-22, and could be decisively superior to the F-35," claims Richard Fisher, a senior fellow on Asian military affairs at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, a Washington-based security think tank.

Other denizens of the military-industrial complex have pushed hyperbole further, with predictions that the plane — though it looks enormous in the photographs — may be pretty much invisible to radar.

"You can tell it has some serious stealth technology," proclaims one former Navy pilot now in the defense investment business quoted by Fox News. "My F-18 looks like an 18-wheeler on radar. That thing might not even show up."


We should not have to wait too long before some obliging member of Congress calls for the reopening of the F-22 production line, cut off by Gates in 2009 after a mere 187 planes had been built.

My personal feeling: the best play for the United States might be to decouple from ROK’s hardline policy, engage in some reverse wedging i.e. rapprochement with a (very willing) North Korea to distance it from China, and, at least for the purpose of geopolitics, take the much-touted threat of “instability on the Korean peninsula” as the Chinese put it, off the table.

With China’s self-declared role as problem-solver for the DPRK headache diminished, negotiations with Chinese could focus directly on the things that China is doing itself that disturb its neighbors: military buildup, island and atoll shenanigans, and so on.

What we’re doing right now is exactly the opposite: feeding into the Chinese narrative by touting North Korea as an existential threat that, unfortunately, we don’t seem to be able to do anything about without Chinese assistance.

Re Eyesight to the Blind, most people know it as a song off the Who’s Tommy rock opera. The Who were actually covering a tune by bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson.

Sonny Boy Williamson was a member of the great 1950s Chess blues triumvirate including Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf that fueled the rise of the Chicago record label in the pre-Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley days.

He was a master of the blues harp and a sly, underplayed style that contrasted with the more assertive stance of Muddy Waters and Howlin’Wolf. He recorded Eyesight to the Blind as a 78 for Trumpet Records in Mississippi in the early 1950s. Arhoolie has issued his Trumpet (pre-Chess recordings) as Sonny Boy Williamson: King Biscuit Time (since it includes a 15-minute recording of a radio show—sponsored by a flour company—that he hosted in the mid-1960s).

Here’s Eyesight to the Blind and a link to get the Arhoolie CD.

Youtube uploaded by randomandrare

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

What Julian Assange Is Doing Is Not So Terrible...

...But What We're Doing to Bradley Manning Is Terrible

There seems to be an increasingly bright line in the foreign affairs realms of the blogosphere separating those who are concerned about the public relations and legal jihad against Julian Assange and the affliction of Bradley Manning, and those who mock, snort, and maintain the proper air of sniggering condescension and ostentatious outrage to please their bespoke sources at the State Department.

On the left, there's an interesting recapitulation of the split between the opponents of the Iraq war and the liberal hawk supporters of the get-Saddam crusade.

Today, in my opinion, Glenn Greenwald, Counterpunch, and are on the side of the good guys.

From his prosperous perch at Salon, I imagine Glenn Greenwald needs little more than moral support.

But I think Counterpunch and wouldn't mind some more tangible, financial indication of appreciation.

Please visit their sites to subscribe (in the case of Counterpunch) or make a donation (in the case of

Here's an excerpt from a recent interview Daniel Ellsberg gave to's radio arm:

Horton: Okay, good. So, welcome to the show. Tell me, there’s a lot of talk in the media saying that, “Yeah, well, we all give Dan Ellsberg respect for leaking the Pentagon Papers” – now at least there’s somewhat of a consensus that maybe that was the right thing to do – “but WikiLeaks is a totally different thing. This guy Assange has a terrible agenda to hurt America,” not help it like you wanted to do, and I think that’s at least part of it. What do you think about that?

Ellsberg: Well, Floyd Abrams, who defended the New York Times in front of the Supreme Court in the Pentagon Papers case, where the question was injunction, prior restraint against the New York Times, just had a Wall Street Journal article in which he quoted me, critically I could say, and he says, “Daniel Ellsberg says that there is a myth that Pentagon Papers good, WikiLeaks bad.” And that’s true, I did say that and I do say that and it is a myth.

And then he went on to say, “But the real myth is not that one, but the real myth is that they’re the same.” Well, nobody said they’re the same. Obviously there are all kinds of differences which certainly I can identify as well as anybody. But there are some fundamental similarities, both in the motive and the kind of war there and the need for the revelations that they’re presenting.

And in terms of the charges that are made against them, including by Abrams, but especially by others, again there’s a very great similarity in the situation. People are implying that everyone could see that the Pentagon Papers – which was a history of a single conflict over a period of time; it was focused on one thing and it revealed deception by a succession of administrations – everybody could see that that was a worthy thing to do, or at least, you know, conscientious, and my motives were good, etc. etc. etc. Not everybody saw that at the time. Not the administration, the White House, which called it treason, with a little [laughs] a little more basis – how to say this: I am a citizen. I do owe allegiance to the United States. To say that Julian Assange is guilty of treason has some problems since he’s an Australian citizen.

But anyway, I was called a traitor, which was no more true of me than it is to say Bradley Manning, who is accused now of leaking, sitting in a jail in Quantico – he’s no more a traitor than I am, and I’m not. Neither of them are terrorists any more than I am, and I’m not.

So I did get these comments. I didn’t get the “terrorist” at the time, because that wasn’t in vogue as a demonizing label then 40 years ago, but I would be called a terrorist now. I have no doubt at all, if I put out the same documents now, they would call me a terrorist, because that’s the bad thing now.

Now, more than that, of course, I was – they’re searching now for a law with which to indict Assange for what he did, and of course Assange’s role is that essentially of the New York Times in the case of the Pentagon Papers or of WikiLeaks. There really is no basis in law that they’re going to find that can nail or can entrap or indict Assange that doesn’t apply to the New York Times exactly as well, since they have put out these clearly classified documents to the public.

In fact, they’ve made the choice, along with the other four newspapers, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, The Guardian, and El Pais in Spain – they made the choice so far which documents in this Cablegate series to put out. Assange has put out on his own website essentially only those, with a few exceptions, but almost entirely those that have been chosen to be referred to or put out by these mainstream newspapers.

So there is no judicial basis, no legal basis, for charging Assange with anything that doesn’t apply equally well to the New York Times, and it’s clear that the administration is not anxious to get in a legal fight with the New York Times. So they’re trying to distinguish Assange not only from me and the Pentagon Papers, but from the New York Times, and that’s really pretty impossible to do.

But finally, to get back to the initial point that I was making, in fact all the charges that were made against Assange now – he’s interfering with diplomatic relationships, he’s disrupting diplomacy, he’s producing embarrassing things that make our relations with other countries harder, and he’s endangering the lives of troops – all of those were said about the Pentagon Papers, and that was the basis, after all, for the attempt at prior restraint, which they didn’t do in this occasion, presumably because they just couldn’t. You know, with the electronic means, there was no way of stopping it. But they could have tried to restrain the Times very well from putting out any more, but in the clear recognition that the information would get out anyway from other newspapers and from the Internet.

So, they said at the time, for instance, that the Pentagon Papers were disrupting our relations with Australia because it embarrassed the measures we took to encourage or coerce Australians into sending troops to Vietnam. Actually that’s something they certainly deserved to embarrassed about. They actually started the draft in order to send Australians to Vietnam, which is a scandal, really.

So, as I say, these accusations were made. They were all found to be unfounded in the end, although it was indeed embarrassing to relations. The idea that in these documents there are criticisms by American diplomats of their counterparts [laughs] – and that was not true of the Pentagon Papers? Almost any – most pages at random would find extreme criticisms of the government of Saigon, our puppets in Saigon, for example, and in complaints about our allies, whether they were doing enough in their relationship, one way or the other.

So I come to the point: Condemn this, and you do condemn the Pentagon Papers, and the question is then, was it a good thing or not for the Pentagon Papers to come out? Was it legitimate in a democracy? Did we need it or not? And there were plenty of people who said not, at the time, that it shouldn’t have happened. And those have basically the same point of view that is condemning Assange now.

An article by Jean Casella and James Ridgway from their site Solitary Watch, via Counterpunch, puts Manning's treatment in a sobering perspective:

For the past few weeks, progressive online media sources have been alive with outrage against the conditions in which accused Wikileaker Bradley Manning is being held. Manning is in 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement at a Marine brig in Quantico, Virginia, denied sunlight, exercise, possessions, and all but the most limited contact with family and friends. He has now been in isolation for more than seven months. The cruel and inhuman conditions of his detention, first widely publicized by Glenn Greenwald on Salon and expanded upon by others, are now being discussed, lamented, and protested throughout the progressive blogosphere (ourselves included). Few of those taking part in the conversation hesitate to describe Manning's situation as torture.

Meanwhile, here at Solitary Watch, we've been receiving calls and emails from our modest band of readers, all of them saying more or less the same thing: We're glad Bradley Manning's treatment is getting some attention, but what about the tens of thousands of others who are languishing in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails? According to available data, there are some 25,000 inmates in long-term isolation in the nation's supermax prisons, and as many as 80,000 more in solitary in other prisons and jails. Where is the outrage–even among progressives–for these forgotten souls? Where, even, is some acknowledgment of their existence?


Frequently, writers and readers make the point that Manning is being subjected to these condition while he is merely accused , rather than convicted, of a crime. Perhaps they need to be introduced to the 15-year-old boy who, along with several dozen other juveniles, is being held is solitary in a jail in Harris County, Texas, while he awaits trial on a robbery charge. He is one of hundreds–if not thousands–of prisoners being held in pre-trial solitary confinement, for one reason or another, on any given day in America. Most of them lack decent legal representation, or are simply too poor to make bail.

We have also seen articles suggesting that the treatment Manning is receiving is worse than the standard for solitary confinement, since he is deprived even of a pillow or sheets for his bed. Their authors should review the case of the prisoners held in the St. Tammany Parish Jail in rural Louisiana. According to a brief by the Louisiana ACLU, "After the jail determines a prisoner is suicidal, the prisoner is stripped half-naked and placed in a 3′ x 3′ metal cage with no shoes, bed, blanket or toilet…Prisoners report they must curl up on the floor to sleep because the cages are too small to let them lie down. Guards frequently ignore repeated requests to use the bathroom, forcing some desperate people to urinate in discarded containers…People have been reportedly held in these cages for days, weeks, and months." The cells are one-fourth the size mandated by local law for caged dogs.

There is, rightly, concern over the damage being done to Manning's mental health by seven months in solitary. Seldom mentioned is the fact that an estimated one-third to one-half of the residents of America's isolation units suffer from mental illness, and solitary confinement cells have, in effect, become our new asylums. Witness the ACLU of Montana's brief on a 17-year-old mentally ill inmate who "was so traumatized by his deplorable treatment in the Montana State Prison that he twice attempted to kill himself by biting through the skin on his wrist to puncture a vein." During his ten months in solitary confinement, he was tasered, pepper sprayed, and stripped naked in view of other inmates, and "his mental health treatment consists of a prison staff member knocking on his door once a week and asking if he has any concerns."

Finally, many have argued that the nature of Manning's alleged crimes renders him a heroic political prisoner, rather than a "common" criminal. Those who take this line might want to look into the "Communications Management Units" at two federal prisons, where, according to a lawsuit filed last year by the Center for Constitutional Rights, prisoners are placed in extreme isolation "for their constitutionally protected religious beliefs, unpopular political views, or in retaliation for challenging poor treatment or other rights violations in the federal prison system." Or they might investigate the aftermath of the recent prison strike in Georgia, in which several inmates have reportedly been thrown into solitary for leading a nonviolent protest against prison conditions.

All of these cases are "exceptional," but only in that they earned the attention of some journalist or advocate. Most prisoners held solitary confinement are, by design, silent and silenced. Most of their stories–tens of thousands of them–are never told at all. And solitary confinement is now used as a disciplinary measure of first resort in prisons and jails across the country, so its use is anything but exceptional.

All across America, inmates are placed in isolation for weeks or months not only for fighting with other inmates or guards, but for being "disruptive" or disobeying orders; for being identified as a gang member (often by a prison snitch or the wrong kind of tattoo); or for having contraband, which can include not only a weapon but a joint, a cell phone, or too many postage stamps. In Virginia, a dozen Rastafarians were in solitary for more than a decade because they refused to cut their dreadlocks, in violation of the prison code. In many prisons, juveniles and rape victims are isolated "for their own protection" in conditions identical to those used for punishment. And for more serious crimes, the isolation simply becomes more extreme, and more permanent: In Louisiana, two men convicted of killing a prison guard have been in solitary confinement for 38 years.


The treatment of Bradley Manning, which has introduced many on the left to the torment of solitary confinement, may present an opportunity for them to measure their own humanity. They might begin by asking themselves whether prison torture is wrong, and worthy of their attention and outrage, only when it is committed against people whose actions they admire.